Old photograph of Washington DC bridge and crowd

The Embassy Presence in Washington D.C.

The Embassy Presence in Washington D.C. 976 710
by Priscilla R. Linn

Finding embassies on a map of Washington, D.C. is a relatively straightforward task. They lie in northwest quadrant of one of the smallest capitals in the world, often lining up along (or close to) the avenues that city planner Pierre L’Enfant drew up over 200 years ago. Other locations in Washington, D.C. could, in principle, welcome many foreign missions. Reasons for the concentration of embassies in Washington hinge on the need to be close to the White House, U.S. Department of State, Congress, and international organizations. Embassies also desire a location in a prestigious neighborhood that can enhance both national identity and standing among nations in the international community.

Essential diplomatic terms

Since diplomacy often requires a specific vocabulary, this essay will clarify the meaning of several words used here. The Diplomat’s Dictionary defines the word “embassy” as: “The residence of an ambassador.” The Dictionary states that in loose, contemporary usage, the word “embassy” also refers to the office building of the ambassador and his senior staff. For clarity, this essay follows the “loose contemporary usage” for “embassy,” and does not include ambassadors’ residences in the discussion. An embassy also encompasses the diplomatic corps that conducts foreign affairs from the embassy building. People refer to the embassy office building as a “chancery,” where an ambassador and his principal staff conduct diplomatic business.

In the first 117 years as a nation, foreign governments did not work from embassies on U.S. soil, but rather occupied buildings called legations, which the Diplomat’s Dictionary dismisses as “second-class” embassies. Legations conduct the diplomatic functions of an embassy, but with a lower status in the diplomatic world.1

Three other terms occur in this essay, “mission,” “post” (which means the same as mission in this essay), and “consulate.”

The Diplomat’s Dictionary offers the definition of “mission” as “The permanent embassy . . . of a state resident in another state.” A “consulate” is an office that one country sets up in a major city of another country. Consulates assist and protect their countries’ citizens who travel, work, or study in that country, promote trade, issue passports to their own citizens and visas to citizens of the host country wishing to travel to the consulate’s country.

An ambassador is the highest ranking diplomat sent to represent his or her country abroad. An ambassador is accredited through letters of authorization or credence to a foreign sovereign or organization and resides in the country to conduct diplomatic business through an embassy.

A minister, a position the United States favored in the early years of its diplomatic relations, is a rank just below that of ambassador. While an ambassador is the chief of an embassy, a minister can only be chief of a legation, which, as stated above, is a diplomatic post of lesser importance than that of an embassy.2

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